8 signs you’re being subtly manipulated (and how to break free)

Master manipulators are experts at subtlety.

Like bed bugs, you don’t feel them biting but you suffer the aftermath nonetheless. They know how to toy with your mind without you suspecting a thing.

And they have the tools to control you—even destroy you—if you’re not careful.

In this article, you’ll find 8 classic signs that you’re being subtly manipulated (and tips on how to break yourself free).

1) They thank you in advance

They ask you a favor.

And before you can even say “I’ll think about it”, they’d say “Thanks in advance!”

Classic manipulative move.

Manipulators know that if you’re a people-pleaser, you’ll find it extremely difficult to explain why you can’t do something for them… so, you basically have no choice but to oblige them.

What to do:

Say: “Whoops. I didn’t say yes yet. I’ll have to think about it.” 

Or, if you’re willing to try but you don’t want to feel pressured, say “I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything at the moment.”

This will give you the time and space to consider their request.

2) They say bad things about your friends and family

“Don’t tell your boyfriend I told you, but I saw him talking with a female co-worker.”

Uhhh… what’s wrong with that?

Nothing.

But, for some reason, they make it seem like he’s already cheating on you and living a second life with another person. 

To a manipulative person, everything is painted with malice.

And they’d say the same thing about your friends and family, too.

Why?

They want to isolate you from the people you love. 

This way, you’d be more dependent on them… which gives them the opportunity to manipulate you more and more.

What to do:

Stay away from them as much as possible. 

If you have no choice, keep the engagement short and casual, and maybe take everything they say with a grain of salt. 

3) They give you the silent treatment

Manipulators use silence to guilt-trip the people they want to control.

So, if you do something that displeases them—like declining when they ask you to do favors for them—they’d appear fine alright, but only for a while…

A few minutes later, you’ll receive the silent treatment.

Ask them what’s wrong, and they’d still stay quiet. Push them harder and they’d tell you how you “hurt” them.

They want you to change your mind.

And they do this by giving you a taste of what you’ll get if you don’t give them what they want. And this usually works if you have a codependent relationship.

What to do:

Try not to give in to the silent treatment. Don’t even acknowledge it!

If it feels very uncomfortable, stay away for a while, and discuss their behavior once you’ve both had time to cool down.

4) They tell you a sob story

This is yet another technique manipulators use to weaponize guilt.

They’ll tell you about their bad day, their bad week, their bad life…

Why?

So you’ll feel sorry for them, and become their “hero.” They know that if you’re highly empathetic, you would not want to do anything to make their situation worse. 

You’d find it challenging to be hard on them even if they committed a major offense. 

And you’d definitely find it hard to say “no” to their requests.

After all, only heartless people could add misery to people who are already “suffering,” right? 

What to do:

Listen to their story, but try to not let it affect your decisions. Instead, work on saying whatever you need to say with kindness.  

If they did you wrong, say “I’m sorry you experienced all that. However, your actions have consequences. So, I still have to X because you did Y.”

And if they ask for favors, turn them down by saying “I’m really sorry that happened to you. I’d like to help you, but I don’t have the space or the energy to do what you’re asking right now.”

5) They say “You’re so sensitive”

phrases men with low emotional intelligence use in relationships 8 signs you’re being subtly manipulated (and how to break free)

Ahhh, yes. Gaslighting. Another classic move.

Manipulators say things that make you doubt your perception of things. 

They know that creating this constant presence of doubt would make you susceptible to believing them more than you believe yourself.

If they say or do something offensive, they’d tell you “Now, don’t be too sensitive” or “Hey, not everything is about you.”

And they’d say this in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, that it’s as if they’re just looking out for yourself!

The truth is, they’re saying this so you’d just shut up and let them do whatever it is that they want to do.

What to do:

Don’t be hasty to respond. Manipulators know that you’ll react when you hear these words. So, try to be calm. 

Then if you realize that no, you’re not being oversensitive, explain your case to them in a calm manner.

Be very level-headed and say, “I know it seems like I’m overreacting but the thing is, I actually don’t like to be treated this way. And I need you to respect that.”

6) They remind you of how good they’ve been to you

“Oh, I just remember that time you were struggling with your presentation and we had to cram ‘til 5am. Man, that was crazy!”

But then later they’d add, “Can you help me with my presentation this time?”

Or, “It was me who introduced you to your fiancé!”

But then later ask you to donate to their organization.

While there are people who just say these things without any intention of manipulating you, there are still those who say it to try to get something from you.

How to tell?

Well, if they ask you a lot of favors or if they want to have things their way.

They must think that you would feel bad saying “no” to them because once upon a time, they’ve helped you.

What to do:

Genuine kindness and generosity isn’t transactional. You don’t do acts of kindness to others hoping to get anything in return.

You can thank them until your last breath. 

But remember, you have every right to say “no” to them because their choice to help you doesn’t mean you’re eternally indebted to them.

7) They threaten you indirectly

“I hate so-called friends who don’t support my endeavors. I cut them out of my life.”

Well, isn’t that scary?

They’re basically trying to tell you that you have to back them up on everything, not criticize their work, and probably do 100 things to show you’re a “good friend”.

After all, what if what you’re doing is “unsupportive” for them already? How hard would it be for them to cut you out too?

What to do:

Call them out gently. Tell them why it’s unfair to set these kinds of conditions on relationships. 

Say, “Why would you do that? Maybe they’re not aware that it’s affecting you. As a friend, you should at least talk to them first.”

But if these threats have become more and more intense, then the best thing to do is keep your distance. Your relationship with them is bound to get toxic.

8) They shower you with gifts, praise, and grand gestures

Master manipulators invest in people.

Not out of good faith, of course, but because they think it will benefit them!

They know that by love bombing you and making you feel good, someday, they can get something from you in return— or rather, they SHOULD.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing and pooling resources—in fact, societies all over the world have survived because their members have helped each other in times of need. 

But manipulators use this dynamic to get their own way. 

They’d praise you for being kind, and then ask you to donate to their project.

They’d give you a fancy bottle of wine, so you’ll have no choice but to say yes when they ask if they can crash on your couch for two weeks.

They’d make a big show of helping you out, so that you’d be too embarrassed to decline them later on. 

What to do:

Say no to disingenuous gestures. 

If you feel that their actions and support for you have ulterior motives, be kind but be upfront about it. 

And try not to let their acts of “kindness” influence your decisions. If they make you feel bad for it, stand your ground. 

You have no obligation to fulfill their whims, especially when you’re being pressured into it by false “kind” gestures. 

Final thoughts

Unfortunately, manipulation in relationships happens more often than you think. 

Sometimes, they’re the kindest, sweetest, and funniest people you’ll ever meet. So, it makes sense that it takes a lot of work and effort to break free from manipulation. 

But you have to start somewhere. 

The first thing you can do is to take care of yourself by defining your own boundaries. 

Remember that you can say no. 

You can change your mind. 

You’re allowed to make decisions for yourself. 

And you can trust your own mind. 

And if anyone makes you feel otherwise, then maybe it’s worth reevaluating that relationship. 

Picture of Isabella Chase

Isabella Chase

Isabella Chase, a New York City native, writes about the complexities of modern life and relationships. Her articles draw from her experiences navigating the vibrant and diverse social landscape of the city. Isabella’s insights are about finding harmony in the chaos and building strong, authentic connections in a fast-paced world.

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